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Mike Vax: Getting Vaxinated

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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Mike Vax has one of the shortest surnames in jazz music—he's "tied" with Tommy Vig and Jack Six for that honor. However, those familiar with his activities as a well-respected lead trumpeter and soloist with Stan Kenton, a stalwart member of the famous Dukes of Dixieland, the leader and man behind the annual tour of the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra, and as an ardent proponent of jazz education know that what the name Vax lacks in length, Vax delivers in talent and wisdom. A long-time resident of the Bay Area, Vax and retired music educator wife Peggy now reside and launch things from Prescott, Arizona. For nearly 20 years, Vax has been the driver behind the Prescott Jazz Summit, a unique jazz festival that combines All-Star performances, as well as jazz and big band clinics with area school ensembles. He handles the booking and logistics for the Kenton Legacy Orchestra's annual tour. He is also active in the non-profit Friends of Big Band Jazz. Now on the darker side of 70, Vax is busier than ever with all of these activities, as well as maintaining a robust clinic and recording schedule. We chatted with Vax after the recent 2019 Prescott Jazz Summit.

All About Jazz: I'd like to ask you about this past year's Jazz Summit in Prescott, AZ. Thanks for inviting me out. It was quite an event. The Jazz Summit is arguably the best kept secret in jazz and jazz education. Pound for pound, it's as good as any of the more well- known jazz festivals.

Mike Vax: Yes, it was great. I would love for it to get more recognition and publicity. Next year for the 20th anniversary should be even better, and I hope we can get some national attention.

AAJ: What were some of the 2019 Summit highlights?

MV: Well, the opening Friday night jazz concert was a great send-off for the weekend. It offered All-Star smaller ensembles that presented an eclectic program. The packed house at the Elks Theater loved the varied program of jazz standards and tunes from the Great American Song Book. The whole weekend was emceed by musician/comedian, Pete Barbutti. The high school jazz band clinics on Saturday morning were outstanding and are always a highlight. The pro musicians love working with the students and the kids really appreciate what the musicians have to say. We had the student ensemble perform, get feedback from the pros, and then they split off into small sectionals with the pros. We also had a panel discussion on jazz history. The Prescott High School Jazz Band later performed as the opening act to the All-Star big band concert Saturday night. All the daytime efforts seemed to pay off as the school ensemble played great and the audience loved the exciting big band program. Being able to feature many of the musicians and singers with the big band sound is a great experience for both the musicians and the audience. I thought this year's band was one of our best ever. Sunday brought our very popular jazz brunch with more smaller groups performing. I run this like a jazz party and put different musicians together for the sets. Then the weekend finished up with the All-Star Jam Session. Both of these events were catered by a local restaurant—"El Gato Azul."

AAJ: What a great experience for those kids!

MV: I feel that this is the best way to, hopefully, keep jazz music and jazz education going. If we can really get the kids turned on to the music, they will not only be the future performers, but also the future audience for those and other performers.

AAJ: What are the initial plans for Prescott 2020?

MV: We will have some "new blood" as far as musicians go for next year. Scotty Barnhart, trumpeter and leader of the Count Basie Orchestra has already accepted our offer to perform next year. There will be some other new faces as far as musicians and singers go to change things up a bit. We have a wonderful new volunteer committee that is willing to work hard for the future. We will do even more work to gain sponsors and ad sales for our program. Expect more community involvement as well. We plan to add another school or two for our clinics on Saturday. We are also looking at live streaming the Saturday night performance if a sponsor steps up.

AAJ: I know you are planning 2020's Kenton Legacy Band Tour. Please fill us in on what's planned.

MV: Our tour is already over half booked. It's in the Midwest this year. We are starting in Kansas City, working our way over into Illinois, and then heading south through Arkansas and Oklahoma into Texas. We will end the tour at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas—where Rick Condit teaches—for their annual jazz festival. We still have some open dates that need to be filled in and that is what we are working on now.

AAJ: There aren't many big bands touring nowadays. How do you do it?

MV: I am asked this question constantly. My joke is that somehow Stan Kenton and Clark Terry must have "infused" some of their blood into my body and made sure that I would keep this going. The other part is that I guess I am either stupid enough or just plain ornery enough to believe that we HAVE to keep the band on the road to help get new audiences turned on to the music. It seems to get harder every year, but I am determined to keep this going as long as I can. One of the main things that we need is people to donate to Friends of Big Band Jazz to help sponsor our tours. The schools themselves really can't afford a band like ours anymore, and sponsorship donations help us keep the price of the band down so that we can do these tours. Folks can donate at our website.

AAJ: Is this a "Ghost Band?"

MV: We really believe that we are NOT a "Ghost Band." Most "ghost bands" play mainly the music of whatever band leader from 50 to 70 years ago. In keeping with Stan Kenton's belief in creating new music, at least half of all our performances are pieces that are new arrangements and compositions in the Kenton style. Most of these charts are done by members of our band. Also, most ghost bands only do concerts and dances. Most of our gigs on tour are in schools, where we do a free afternoon clinic with the whole band with local students.

AAJ: Who's in the Kenton Legacy band?

MV: It is amazing that the personnel of the band stays pretty constant. The musicians love to get out on the road and hang with so many others who are old friends and great musicians. Some of the "regulars" over the years have been: Saxophones: Kim Richmond, Rick Condit, Joel Kaye and Gary Anderson. Bones: Scott Whitfield, Dale Devoe, Dave Keim, Kenny Shroyer, and Rich Bullock. Trumpets: Dennis Noday, John Harner, Jonathan Dane. C.E. Askew has been our drummer for quite a few years now. Most of the band's personnel were either on Stan's band and/or with Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, and The Harry James Orchestra—and the elite service bands such as The Airmen of Note.

AAJ: How do the clinics on the tour work?

MV: We always play a few tunes for the kids to hear at the beginning of the clinic sessions. Many of these students have never heard a band like ours, so I want them to experience "the sound" before we actually work with them. We then break out into the different sections and have our musicians work with each section of the host school band, plus the students from other schools. We talk about playing the instruments, playing in a section, and have questions from the students. Many times we will also have them play some of their jazz band music for us. We also play for them. Depending on allotted time, we sometimes come back together in the main room and talk a bit about improvisation and jazz and big band history. Sometimes the school band will play a tune or two for us and we can work with them on how to make it even better.

AAJ: How does someone get in touch to put a show on? What is all involved?

MV: People can find out more about booking the band at our website or by contacting me via email. I basically work out our fee with the school, work on them getting hotel rooms for us, and planning the schedule. Then it is up to the school or whatever entity is booking us, to promote the concert and sell tickets. We also help a lot with publicity for each concert.

AAJ: Your Collaboration album with Ron Romm (Summit Records, 2018) garnered lots of positive reviews, etc, Is there a sequel planned?

MV: We have actually done a couple of concerts since the release of the album with our group and they have gone very well. I would love to book the band, or even just Ron and myself to perform with local bands in the future. We haven't talked about a sequel recording, but if the funds were somehow made available, we would do it for sure.

AAJ: Are you doing clinics yourself in 2020?

MV: Yes, I am booking those now for next spring and beyond—domestically and internationally.

AAJ: 2020 is Clark Terry's Centennial. What CT 2020 plans do you have?

MV: I am already talking to The Nash in Phoenix about a special Centennial Concert around Clark's Birthday in December of 2020. We will be bringing in some special guests and using my "TRPTS" group as the "house band." It should be an amazing presentation, and I'm hoping to promote it all over the country. Maybe we will even get some friends and fans of Clark to attend.

AAJ: Mike on behalf of all About Jazz, thank you!

MV: It is always my pleasure to talk with you Nick, and thanks to all About Jazz and for all you do to help us promote Friends of Big Band Jazz and our endeavors to promote and support jazz and jazz education.
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